After Sandy, should NYC build a storm surge barrier?

The impacts of Sandy—part tropical cyclone and part nor’easter—on the eastern U.S. is a sobering reminder of our vulnerability to extreme weather.  From the storm surge damage along the New Jersey coastline and low-lying parts of New York City to the blizzard conditions in West Virginia and the heavy rain and power outages that afflicted large swaths of the northeastern U.S., millions of people have been impacted and tens of billions of dollars of damage has been wrought. 

In addition to the money it will take to repair homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure, there also has been incalculable pain and suffering inflicted.  Over 150 people in the U.S. and Caribbean have died and many more in coastal areas of New York and New Jersey have lost their homes, and with them, irreplaceable keepsakes and other mementos and their sense of security.    

The storm surge and flooding associated with Sandy highlight some of the risks that a changing climate poses to New York and other coastal cities.  While we cannot necessarily predict where and when future extreme weather will strike, science tells us that we can expect more intense storm events and rising seas due to climate change. 

In the wake of Sandy, there has been much discussion about how to prevent the large-scale flooding that overtook lower Manhattan and other parts of New York City.  That discussion has largely focused on whether storm surge barriers should be built to protect the city from future flooding.  Barriers with price tags in the billions of dollars have been built in places like London, Venice, St. Petersburg, and the Netherlands.  While these barriers may be needed in the long term, they also come with numerous implications for neighboring communities, ecosystems, public health, and even navigation that will need to be taken into consideration.  These issues warrant careful analysis and serious public consideration.

In the meantime, there are other less expensive strategies that can be put into place more quickly to protect people and communities from flooding and storm surge.     

For starters, we can be strategic about where we build and how we build.  More stringent zoning ordinances and building codes can prevent new development from being built in vulnerable, low-lying areas and also ensure that new structures and major redevelopment are more resilient.  Retrofitting existing buildings and critical transportation, electrical, and communications networks increases their ability to handle flooding and other effects of extreme weather.  

Further, taking advantage of the buffering ability of natural defenses by protecting and restoring wetlands in places like Jamaica Bay and Staten Island can reduce loss of life and property damage.  These are nature’s tools to protect against flooding.

But we cannot only treat the symptoms of climate change—we also need to treat the underlying problem by significantly reducing carbon pollution through improving energy efficiency, cleaning up our power plants and other sources of carbon pollution, and increasing renewable energy. 

Ultimately, there is not likely a silver bullet for protecting our coastal cities from storm surge and flooding.  As the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, the perils of relying too heavily on a single solution can be catastrophic.  Instead, it will take a variety of strategies and a serious, thoughtful discussion about the solutions to better protect people and communities from extreme weather.    

What’s important now is that New York – and the entire impacted region – get started.

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